Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction

Well this was a devastating read!!

Telling the tale, as it does of Agnes Magnúsdóttir:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

There were no surprises as to the ending, but the further I read through, right up until the last page I was willing history to be changed, for Agnes to pardoned and her life to be saved. Why was I rooting so hard for a murderess? Well Hannah Kent has in her words to:

‘This novel has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’

She does this by recounting the run-up to the murders, partly in the first person narrative that Agnes gives to her chosen priest, Assistant Reverand Tóti Jónsson who is to prepare her spiritually for her death and later to Magrét Jónsson whose farm she was sent to while awaiting her execution. We also have an omnipresent third person narrator who lends a wider view of the crime committed, and of Agnes herself. From this we get an alternative view of how and why Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson came to be slayed with a knife and a hammer one night. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel some sympathy for Agnes, not because the author tells us so, oh no, far cleverer than that Hannah Kent paints a captivating picture of the coldness, darkness and sheer bleakness of life in nineteenth century Iceland alongside the more common tale of a woman deceived by her lover. For Natan and Agnes were lovers; it was for Natan she’d left the comparatively well-populated life in the valley farms as a workmaid to follow him to more or less entire seclusion in Illugastadir.

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Hannah Kent has used the Icelandic sagas as a base to weave the story around, many of the characters we meet prefer these sagas to the Christian teaching of the church. Through this we have the subtle yet powerful lyrical narrative that had me drawn into Agnes’s tale.

‘My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.’

With its references to the superstitions of the day frequently referencing the ravens I came to dread their appearance fearing what horrors they may be about to foretell despite being in a nice warm cosy home not a home where the boards hiding the dung used to build the walls had been sold to enable the family of Jón Jónsson to eat.  The feelings of the household to the newly billeted prisoner are also deftly drawn with a light touch. It is a supposed honour which comes with compensation but one that can’t be refused despite the concerns of both Jón and Magrét about the spiritual and moral welfare of both their daughter.

I can’t praise the author for the haunting simplicity of the writing in this book, although as the story worked its way towards its tragic ending, I was heartbroken.

‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine.’

If you, like me, didn’t get around to reading this when it was first published, I urge you to, this book which does not flinch from the realities of Agnes’s life and death should not be missed.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

56 thoughts on “Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

  1. Still haven’t read this, but must do soon. My first book of the year was written by an Icelandic author, Sjon’s The Whispering Muse, which reminded me I have meaning to read Hannah Kent’s book. Great setting. Thanks for a fabulous review and reminder Cleo.


  2. Fine review, Cleo, as ever. I really like it when a book gives you an insight into a character like that, so that you really feel for that person. And the mix of history and atmosphere are really effective backdrops for the actual story.


  3. Great review, Cleo. I’m glad you felt that it lived up to expectations. It’s some time since I read it now but I still remember how Kent captured that frigid Icelandic weather and Agnes’ desperate situation. One of the few books that was hyped to the skies but actually lived up to it.


    1. The research was amazing, wasn’t it, the climate and also the history. It was also much less depressing than I feared, despite its sad content, it had some very positive and uplifting elements which I thought did justice to its tragic protagonist.


  4. Great review, Cleo, and so glad you enjoyed this one as much as I did! Your quotes reminded me of her beautiful writing style – one of those books you could open at almost any page and find something worth quoting… 🙂


  5. OMG, I am sure I would also be one of those rooting for Agnes. When a story is presented with these kinds of narratives, it is possible to truly empathize and understand the worst deeds. Thanks for sharing…and now I must read this one.


  6. First of all, what a wonderful review. The quotes were really lovely. I remember reading so many positive thoughts about this book a few years ago and I did purchase it and still it sits on my Kindle. It’s patiently waiting. I have enjoyed several books set in Iceland and I suspect this one will be another. Thanks for a big nudge to pick it up!!


  7. I’m so happy you enjoyed this Cleo! It is such a good story, although it reminded me so much of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace that I could not but be a bit nasty and think there was something going on with Kent’s book. Anyway, if you liked the introspection and the psychological thriller-ish tone, I highly recommend you Alias Grace, if you haven’t read it yet – can’t remember if you’re an Atwood fan or not.


    1. I haven’t read Alias Grace although I have read some of Atwood’s books – this is why I love blogging, I’ve checked it out and it is added to my wishlist because it sounds perfect for me. Thank you!


  8. I read and reviewed this a while ago too. It’s a pretty impressive debut, I wonder what she’ll do next since this story has been with her for many years before the novel was published.


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